Could shellfish unlock the future of food packaging?

Food Spark talks to UK biotech company CuanTec, who have partnered with Waitrose to produce food packaging made from waste crustacean shells.

30 April 2019
food wastepackagingplasticseafoodsustainabilitytechnology

Scary stats incoming. It has been predicted that around 12bn tonnes of plastic waste will inhabit landfills by 2050, with some pieces taking as long as 1,000 years to biodegrade – sometimes only decomposing to microplastic.

Plastic is said to outnumber sea life by six to one, with the journal Science revealing that around 10m metric tonnes of plastic waste is being added to the sea every single year.

Greenpeace has claimed that the UK’s top 10 supermarkets are introducing 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic into the world every year.

Retailers have tried to address the issue in a number of ways: Morrisons announced at the end of last year that it would make all of its own-brand plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable. Iceland, meanwhile, went one step further by promising to eliminate all plastic from its own-brand products by 2023 – the first major supermarket to do so.

This month, Waitrose revealed a new partnership with UK biotech company CuanTec. Based in Scotland, CuanTec has developed a home compostable and anti-microbial form of packaging that, it claims, could change the face of plastic worldwide.

The packaging, which will replace the plastic associated with a number of Waitrose seafood products from early 2021, includes chitin, a biopolymer found in the parts of shellfish that are usually discarded.

After obtaining the chitin from the waste shells, CuanTec converts it to the soluble form chitosan, which is then combined with natural polymers to create a flexible film packaging

CuanTec claims that the material will naturally decompose within 90 days and could increase shelf life by a remarkable 40% due to its anti-microbial properties.

The science

Chitin and chitosan are being used worldwide already in many different industries, Andrew King, head of marketing at CuanTec, tells Food Spark. In medicine, for example, it is used to create dissolvable sutures.

“The issue is that the production of both chitin and chitosan through traditional chemistry methods is not generally environmentally friendly as it takes a lot of energy to produce, uses a large number of harmful chemicals and leaves plenty of toxic waste materials,” according to King.

“We have developed a clean way of extracting chitin from waste shellfish (primarily langoustines) through biological fermentation. We then gently convert to chitosan using a deacetylation process that uses five times less sodium hydroxide than the normal chemical process.

“We then add biopolymers to create the finished product – a durable film that naturally decomposes and has anti-microbial properties. It’s a workable solution to the plastic problem.”

These anti-microbial properties prevent bacteria from surviving inside the film, preventing food spoilage and extending shelf-life. This also helps tackle this issue of harmful pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.

The Potential

King believes CuanTec’s partnership with Waitrose will allow the company to take is research to the next level.

“We’ve actually been working with them since being finalists in their search for innovative companies to assist with removal of plastic from their business in 2018 and we have been steadily working on creating a fully home-compostable solution for their specifications,” he reveals.

“Now, we are working towards a final product that we can take to market. Considering the problem of plastic, the retail industry is biting our hand off to get involved. You’ll forgive us for being a little overexcited – we believe we can really make an impact in the world!”

While CuanTec’s new material will debut with seafood, there are many other opportunities for utility.

“Seafood pouches and biopolymer cling film is where we are in the first instance. It’s a natural starting place as the packaging and food match, a true example of circular economy. But it really doesn’t have to just be paired with seafood,” explains King. “In the case of the vegan movement, chitin is also present in mushrooms.

CuanTec is also experimenting with different shapes and rigidity, experimenting with ways to use its material for carrier bags, plastic bottles and even flat packing.

“It could even reach the agricultural industry. For example, things like silage bales are thinly wrapped in plastic,” adds King.

“We’re the only company making this material and we’re only just getting started.”

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